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Coalition rethinks choice for PM

June 21, 2012

ISLAMABAD, June 21: Till late on Thursday night, the majority coalition appeared to be struggling to find its best choice to be elected prime minister for a short term of maximum nine months, and possibly for another braver role: political martyrdom like his predecessor’s.

Earlier on Thursday, former federal minister Makhdoom Shahabuddin of the Pakistan People’s Party filed his nomination for the job vacated by the court-dismissed Yousuf Raza Gilani two days ago, with two other party and cabinet colleagues, Raja Pervez Ashraf and Qamar Zaman Kaira, as what were described as “covering candidates”.

But doubts arose about the candidature of the affable politician from southern Punjab after the army-controlled Anti-Narcotics Force (ANF) created a stir afterwards by announcing that a magistrate in Rawalpindi had issued unbailable warrants for the arrest of Mr Shahabuddin to investigate if he had a role in an alleged violation of controls on the import of ephedrine drug, used in the manufacture of medicines, when he was health minister until two years ago.

Leaders of coalition parties went into a second huddle with President Asif Ali Zardari until late on Thursday night possibly to reconsider the choice, for which he had earlier been given the mandate as PPP co-chairman.

The final candidate of the coalition, which has more than two-thirds support in the 342-seat house, can be certain to win Friday’s vote, for which the 92-seat opposition Pakistan Muslim League-N has put up one of its senior parliamentarians, Sardar Mehtab Ahmed Khan, and the eight-seat opposition Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam its chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman.

The new prime minister can hold office until late March, when Mr Gilani’s five-year term would have expired, before a caretaker set-up must come into being to oversee the next national election.

But speculation has been rife whether the Supreme Court’s sword of Damocles will swing also at the next premier as it did at Mr Gilani to make him a political martyr for his party for refusing a court order to write to Swiss authorities to reopen disputed money-laundering charges against Mr Zardari on the ground of a presidential immunity.

The PPP has made clear none of its prime ministers would do it so long as the president enjoys the constitutional immunity against prosecution when he is in office and that it would not let “a trial of the grave” of its assassinated leader Benazir Bhutto, who was the main accused in the charges brought in 1990s by the then PML-N government, with her late mother Nusrat Bhutto and Mr Zardari as co-accused.

The charges were withdrawn under a controversial National Reconciliation Ordinance issued in 2007 by then president Pervez Musharraf but overturned by the Supreme Court after its sacked judges were reinstated by Mr Gilani following a nationwide lawyer-led agitation.